My bed was warm, but my body trembled with chills. The sun shone brightly, but my world felt dark. My eyelids fell heavily, but I couldn’t cross over into sleep. My stomach cramped with hunger, but I couldn’t force anything down. Worry was my only companion, keeping me dreadfully cold, awake, and famished.
I didn’t care about me, though. I would die if it could save Amelia. Was Amelia being starved? Was she scared and shivering in some tormentor’s dank basement? Was she even still alive? These fears pulsed through my brain relentlessly as I wondered where my baby girl was, if I’d ever see her blond pigtails swinging as she chased her sister, if her giggles would ever warm my heart again, if I’d ever feel her stout little arms around my neck. She gave the best hugs.
When I closed my eyes, I could almost feel her near me. In perfect crispness I remembered the night she was born. Barely six pounds, her tiny head full of blond curls, the pucker of her lips. Even after birthing two other babies it was as magical and perfect as if it was the first time. I wept with joy when I first laid eyes on her writhing pink body, her wails a melody that my heart harmonized with. She was so beautiful, so mine. I vowed then and there as I held her close that I would never let her go. From that moment until my dying breath I would protect her. Because that was always the plan—I would go first. A child should never die before the parent. It’s unnatural. It defies the circle of life.
And yet here I was, facing that terrifying possibility of losing a child. Where had my promise gone? How could I protect her now?
My perfect life had become a perfect hell.
Tucked in the shadows of my bedroom, the unbearable hours ticked by, each silent minute shredding my heart muscles a little more. Every chirp of my cell phone, every beeping text jolted me like a defibrillator of hope that it was the police contacting me with good news. They’d found her alive, they were on their way home now, she had been untouched, unhurt, my baby girl was coming home. But no.
A knock on my front door an hour ago sent me tumbling out of bed, stubbing my toe as I scrambled to answer. A Girl Scout making her rounds on Oleander Way cheerily smiled up at me offering her usual cookie variety, until her small voice and hopeful eyes sent me into a blubbering heap. I knew Amelia would never wear a Girl Scout uniform, she’d never sell cookies door to door. As I sobbed in front of these strangers, her mother had protectively stepped between us, like I was a nutcase to be feared. I ended up buying ten boxes of Thin Mints to make up for scaring the poor child.
Hope was my focus. I couldn’t let the alternative seep in.
Amelia would be all right. In my arms. Soon. She had to be.
This was not Fate’s choice.
Fate wanted nothing but pain for me.
A soft knock at the bedroom door broke into my empty world, but I didn’t bid the visitor to enter. I couldn’t speak—partly from the dryness of my throat that hurt from all the sobbing, partly from the lack of will to push words out.
Grieving was exhausting.
Despite my silence, the bedroom door swung open. I glanced up to see the cautious steps of Shayla Kensington—a true friend among sparse acquaintances, being the too-busy-to-socialize mom that I was. With soccer games and ballet classes and gymnastics and piano lessons, I barely had time to get my nails done, let alone befriend women who would backbite when given the chance. Some people collect friends, putting them on display as if it was a competition. Not me. All I needed was my family and Shayla.
Despite her penchant for drama, Shay was the one person I could trust. Our shared secrets stayed secrets, not neighborhood scandals. I knew she was here to help, not gather news for the town gossips. As she approached, her eyes watered, her lips trembled; she wore her empathy like a shroud. Then she smiled weakly—she knew I wouldn’t want her pity.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said. “How you holding up?”
I didn’t move. Couldn’t speak. Instead I buried my face in my pillow. A muffled sob escaped my lips.
A moment later the bedsprings sunk as she sat next to me, resting her hand on my shoulder, then rubbing circles along my back. I knew she meant to be soothing, but at that moment I wanted to shrug her damn circles off my skin and just be left alone.
“Jay blames me. He thinks this is all my fault, that I let this happen. He hates me. Thinks I’m an unfit mother. Is he right?”
I didn’t want her answer, because I already knew what she’d say. She’d tell me it wasn’t my fault, that I’m a wonderful mom, that I’d do anything for my kids, that Jay doesn’t really think that. All lies. I didn’t need lies right now. I needed the truth. And the truth was I had failed my daughter. I had failed my family. Broken it irreparably.
“And before you answer, just tell me this: have you ever lost one of your kids?”
Her sigh brushed my cheek.
“Yes?” I looked up at her, bewildered. She had my full attention now. “You never told me this. What happened?”
“Tenica was a newborn, and I had promised Arion we’d go for a walk outside. Right before we were heading out the door, Tenica blew up her diaper. You know when it goes up the back and they need a whole wardrobe change. So while I’m cleaning her up and putting her in a new outfit, Arion decides to head out without me. I think he was almost seven at the time—definitely knew better. I’m finally ready and he’s not in the house. I look outside, he’s nowhere to be found. Panic sets in. I’m freaking out at this point. I run all over the yard, down the street, no sign of him. I’m positive someone has taken him. That he’s gone forever.”
“It’s terrifying, isn’t it?” I vividly remembered the panic.
“I ended up calling the cops, going from house to house trying to find him. It wasn’t until hours later that the cops showed up with Arion. Apparently he had made his way down to his classmate Drew’s house, about a mile or so away, and he was there playing video games. Drew’s parents didn’t even know he was there. That was the beginning of their friendship, so I guess something good came out of the gray hairs he gave me that day.”
I wondered how long it would take for the cops to find Amelia … if at all. It had been too long already.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about this?”
“I was mortified, embarrassed. The last thing I want to tell my best friend is that I failed big-time as a parent. But in the end, I had to accept that shit happens. Arion was alright. I could beat myself up about it, or I could forgive my momentary lapse of trying to be in all places at once. Because ultimately, Jo, that’s what it was. I couldn’t be everywhere at once, and neither could you.”
I wished it was the same thing, but it wasn’t. Arion wasn’t a helpless three-year-old girl. Arion wandered off on his own while my daughter was abducted. The cops found him within hours; Amelia was now two days gone.
“It’s just not the same, Shay. Arion wandered off. Someone took my baby girl. And I let them.”
“I know you’re suffering, but I want to help. What can I do, Jo? Please let me help you.”
Find my baby girl. That’s all I wanted, all I needed.